South Sudan’s Kiir Says Uganda Helping to Fight Rebels

President of Oil-Rich Nation Hopes to Gain Leverage in Peace Talks

Written by PATRICK MCGROARTY.

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January 17, 2014 [JUBA] —The president of South Sudan on Thursday said Ugandan troops are bolstering his fight against a political foe, as partners with a stake in this oil-rich nation back his push to gain leverage in peace talks through battlefield gains.

“I as the head of this government requested them to assist,” Salva Kiir told The Wall Street Journal in an interview at his offices in the capital, the first he has granted since shortly after the fighting began in December.

A month of fighting has left the impoverished 2½-year-old country in chaos and a U.S.-backed experiment in African nation-building in peril.

The U.S. has spent more than $600 million here in each of the past two fiscal years, making it South Sudan’s biggest bilateral partner. Officials built the first paved highway and coached employees at new ministries. Washington even gave trucks to an anti-cattle-rustling unit.

“Despite all the help from outside, if leaders are not willing to work with each other for the benefit of their people, there are limits on what we can do,” said Donald Booth, U.S. envoy to the region.

For the U.S., South Sudan is a democratic bulwark against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who once harbored Osama bin Laden and has persecuted minorities across his vast country. In 2009, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant to arrest Mr. Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity during his violent campaigns against Sudan’s Darfur region.

Meanwhile, South Sudan is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest oil producer after Nigeria and Angola, but fighting has driven out workers and slowed operations. Production is down more than 20%, officials say. Fighting in the oil hub of Malakal has upended the only region where wells are still pumping.

Mr. Bashir traveled to Juba on Jan. 6 to offer troops to help protect South Sudan’s oil fields.

Mr. Bashir’s relations with South Sudan and with Mr. Kiir personally are long and contentious. But Mr. Bashir’s government is dependent on the fees it receives for transporting South Sudan’s crude through its pipeline to the Red Sea, and it is in his interest to end the fighting with the oil industry intact.

The shutdowns will devastate South Sudan’s feeble economy, said Finance Minister Aggrey Tisa Sabuni. Oil provides nearly all the country’s revenue and foreign exchange. Without it, the government will have to borrow on top of $1.6 billion lent by banks and oil firms last year.

“We understand that without oil production, nothing can be moving in South Sudan,” Mr. Kiir said.

Like South Sudan, African nations with the richest resources are also often among the most troubled. Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s top crude producer, is battling rampant oil theft and Islamic insurgents. Angola, the second-place oil producer in the region, is governed by José Eduardo dos Santos, one of Africa’s most corrupt and autocratic leaders.

A month after fighting erupted, the conflict has splintered South Sudan’s army along ethnic lines and killed thousands; some 500,000 people have fled their homes, according to the United Nations. Uganda’s involvement underscores Mr. Kiir’s bid to gain negotiating leverage by notching victories on the battlefield, said security analysts and diplomats, even if it means pushing his young country to the breaking point.

South Sudan has never been far from crisis. A third of the population is chronically hungry and life expectancy is 54 years. Decades of fighting against Sudan’s government and among rival rebels have militarized the 11 million people here and steeled them along ethnic lines.

As president, Mr. Kiir also confronted a vast network of patronage and graft. In a 2012 letter to government officials promising new steps to combat corruption, he estimated “$4 billion are unaccounted for or, simply put, stolen by current and former officials.”

Ugandan jets have bombed forces loyal to former vice president Riek Machar in recent days around the key towns of Bentiu, Bor and Malakal. Ugandan troops are also protecting the airport and presidential palace in Juba, said Paddy Ankunda, a spokesman for Uganda’s military. South Sudan’s military spokesman had previously denied that Uganda was taking part in the conflict.

The spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, refused to comment on the discrepancy Thursday. He said South Sudanese forces were advancing on Bor, 130 miles north of the capital, the only major town still fully in rebel control.

Ethiopia, where cease-fire talks are taking place, and Kenya have been content to let Uganda join the fight while all three push for a peaceful resolution.

Neither side appears ready to make concessions to win a cease-fire, said Comfort Ero, Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group. “Who is going to blink first? That’s the question,” she said.

Other nations also hoped South Sudan would succeed. China courted a new country with oil reserves that could feed its booming economy, and South Sudan also supplies oil to India and Malaysia. Uganda and Kenya have sought to win deals for new pipelines to transport South Sudanese crude and their nationals rushed to the country to do business. That early promise has since faded.

Mr. Kiir’s critics say his recent actions fit the pattern for a man who failed to move from the strictures of military command to the compromise of consensus-driven government.

“He has stifled democracy for personal power,” said Peter Adwok Nyaba, a former higher-education minister jailed for two days in December under suspicion of plotting to overthrow the president.

Last year, Mr. Machar said he would challenge Mr. Kiir as leader of their party ahead of elections expected in 2015. In May, the party delayed a convention where Mr. Machar could have run for that post.

In July, Mr. Kiir fired him and 20 ministers. Mr. Kiir said he was streamlining the government. Mr. Machar and others who lost their jobs said they were pushed out for defying him.

“The president does not accept dissenting voices,” said a former minister who has sought refuge along with 17,000 other people, largely ethnic Nuer, at a U.N. compound near Juba’s airport.

That same month, four Americans who championed South Sudan’s cause in the U.S. wrote to Mr. Kiir condemning army attacks on civilians they said were motivated by ethnic hatred. They urged the president to investigate alleged human-rights abuses.

“Without significant changes and reform, your country may slide toward instability, conflict and a protracted governance crisis,” read the letter from experts including Roger Winter, a former special representative to the State Department.

Mr. Machar has said Mr. Kiir “completely immobilized the party, abandoned collective leadership and jettisoned all democratic pretensions to decision making.”

Representatives for Mr. Machar who are attending the cease-fire talks in Ethiopia didn’t respond to calls and text messages seeking comment.

Mr. Kiir said the fault is Mr. Machar’s. “The party and the government are tolerant to all voices,” Mr. Kiir said. “He was the one who started shooting, not me.”

On Dec. 15, fighting broke out at a military base in Juba. Troops from Mr. Kiir’s Dinka tribe attacked civilians from Mr. Machar’s Nuer tribe.

A research team from Human Rights Watch in South Sudan documented widespread killings of Nuer men by South Sudanese armed forces in Juba, including a massacre of between 200 and 300 men in the Gudele neighborhood on Dec. 16, the rights group said.

Researchers also documented the targeting and killing of civilians of Dinka ethnicity by opposition forces in other parts of the country, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

“Appalling crimes have been committed against civilians for no other reason than their ethnicity,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides need to leave civilians out of their conflict, let aid groups reach people who need help and accept a credible, independent investigation into these crimes.”

Mr. Kiir has condemned the violence and pledged to punish anyone who attacked civilians, but he has also refused Mr. Machar’s key demand—to release 11 political leaders arrested last month. Mr. Kiir says he cannot speed their progress through South Sudan’s legal system.

“I know there has been concern of international leaders that these people must be released,” Mr. Kiir said on Thursday. “Let them go through the process of law. We cannot break our own laws.”

As peace talks sputter, people who survive the initial spasms of ethnic violence still fear for their lives.

“I cannot go home,” said 25-year-old Martha John, one of the thousands taking shelter at the U.N. compound near the airport.

She was with her husband and two young children in Mia Saba on Dec. 15 when soldiers barged into her uncle’s house next door. The soldiers shot her uncle, a Nuer like her, and his family of five.

Ms. John hid her family under a bed. When the soldiers left, they ran a mile to the U.N. compound, dropping to the ground whenever soldiers passed.

Ms. John’s husband tried to go home last week to collect some clothes. Soldiers shot at him and took his motorcycle. Ms. John says she can’t return as long as Messrs. Kiir or Machar is in charge.

“The two of them are not able to be president,” Ms. John said. “If they were, I wouldn’t be staying in this camp.”

Mr. Kiir said he never ordered ethnic violence, and called for an end to such attacks.

“If there is any person who is doing that hoping that he’s doing it to support me…then that person…must stop because they are destroying my image,” Mr. Kiir said.

—Nicholas Bariyo in Kampala, Uganda and Peter Wonacott in Johannesburg contributed to this article.

Write to Patrick McGroarty at patrick.mcgroarty@wsj.com

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